Police in riot gear facing demonstrators

Police body camera footage of the brutal police killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers was yet another jarring example of police violence to come out of the United States. With high-profile cases of police brutality in the US making worldwide headlines in recent years, it sometimes feels like it’s a problem over there, but not in the UK. This could not be further from the truth; police violence is very much a reality in the UK and at its core is ‘warrior culture’. To reduce the UK police violence that remains all too common, deeply-rooted police warrior culture must be addressed.

Police organisational culture refers to the informal norms, attitudes and values in police institutions and its influence on officers’ behaviour in the field. Warrior culture sees police officers default to violence and aggression when conflicts arise. While there can be multiple cultures in a police force, warrior street police culture is particularly influential. It is largely characterised by aggression, machoism, intolerance, bias, suspicion, and detachment from policed communities, creating an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Common in the UK and US, warrior street policing hardens officers and alienates them from community members.

And we need not look far to find recent evidence of the brutality of UK warrior street police culture in action. Serving London Metropolitan Police officer and prolific serial rapist David Carrick was recently convicted of heinous crimes committed over several decades.

Dr Tara Lai Quinlan - Assistant Professor in Law and Criminal Justice, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham

While UK policing seeks to distinguish itself from its US counterpart, laying claim to being guided by the policing principles attributed to Sir Robert Peel - including notions of garnering public respect and approval, impartiality, service to the public and minimising the use of force - critics argue England and Wales policing is more quasi-military than Peelian. They assert England and Wales policing in practice has always been characterised by its military-like character, which allows repression, regards some segments of the population as ‘enemies’ and uses force, including deadly force, when required.

And we need not look far to find recent evidence of the brutality of UK warrior street police culture in action. Serving London Metropolitan Police officer and prolific serial rapist David Carrick was recently convicted of heinous crimes committed over several decades. Baroness Casey of Blackstock is currently conducting a review of the London Met’s police culture following the killing of Sarah Everard by serving Met officer Wayne Couzens. The IOPC has also recently found the London Met and other UK police forces have organisational cultures which condone misogyny and racism. Sadly, policing research over many decades has consistently found that misogyny and racism persist in UK street policing culture. This must change if we really want to reduce police violence.

Police diversity is an important step to help change police culture. While increasing Black And Minority Ethnic (BAME), female, LGBTQ+ and other officers traditionally underrepresented in UK policing is vital, it is not a singular solution. Research I conducted on UK and US police diversity found that while diversity is growing in UK policing, often officers underrepresented in UK policing are forced to make a choice - either assimilate into and adopt biased police cultures, or risk ostracisation from fellow cops. Officers I interviewed recounted being bullied for joining affinity groups like the National Black Police Association which help officers deal with the unique pressures they face as officers of colour. UK Government data shows BAME officers are subject to higher rates of internal discipline, voluntary resignation, and termination, and lower rates of promotion compared to their White colleagues. So, while increasing UK police diversity matters, it must happen alongside wider cultural change.

US police leaders have called attention to the problem of police warrior culture and how it drives brutality. They argue that a guardianship approach is a better way to reduce police violence in the long run. Police guardians emphasise working in partnership with local communities to create mutual respect and trust. This model shows great promise, and many UK officers already serve as police guardians, but it has not yet been adopted in full. The UK has not yet reckoned with the influence of police warrior culture, which must happen for meaningful reform to occur.

Now is a time of tremendous opportunity for UK policing to engage in systemic reform of policing culture. While the US has over 18,000 largely autonomous police departments, England and Wales have just 43 forces, with a fair degree of national oversight. The UK is, therefore, uniquely positioned to initiate dramatic and necessary national changes. To do this, UK policing must change the way it hires, trains, evaluates, assigns, monitors, supervises, disciplines, and terminates its officers.

Some UK police leaders have called for such systemic reforms, but these calls are often met with political and institutional resistance. Yet the data is clear that revamping policing institutions can help to shift away from police warrior culture and move toward guardianship policing of local communities. When UK policing can embrace the guardian model, it will be able to better serve the public it is meant to protect, rather than inspiring fear and distrust.